The Flow of Life: The Wisdom of Wu Wei

Why is it that we spend so much time and effort pursuing goals and desires that go against our natural intuitions and inclinations?

Motivated by the longing for external praise and validation, we chase lofty ambitions which ultimately feel inauthentic and unnatural. This is akin to trying to swim against rather than with the flow of the river; like running faster and faster as you gradually sink deeper into quick sand.

There is a misconception in our society that effort and action is always the best way to address our problems. ‘Hustle culture’ tells us that we are never enough. Under this mindset, one should always aim to work longer, harder, faster and continually be more and more productive.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this kind of lifestyle are far too familiar in our culture. Anxiety, perpetual stress and burnout are the outcomes of clinging onto an ever-changing set of fantasies advertised to us on our televisions and phones.

This treadmill never stops, and as time progresses old age soon hinders our ability to keep up.

Wu Wei

Luckily, there is an alternative way of thinking which is rooted in the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. The concept of wu wei translates into English as ‘non-action’ or ‘effortless action.’ However, it should not be conflated with laziness (I promise you I am not advocating for you to simply sit on the couch watching reality TV and eating potato chips).

Wu wei is pursuing what is most natural to you. It aligns with the common idiom of ‘going with the flow’ giving up resistance and the illusion of control.  Rather than forcing things we can always choose to let things be as they ought to be. That is, we can choose to go with rather than against the grain.

The wisdom of wu wei is not a sort of abstract intellectual form of knowledge, but an intelligence that arises out of one’s intuition. By understanding how the world and nature operates, an individual can make decisions on how to achieve their goals with the least amount of effort. Moreover, they can take the path of least resistance.

An Example: Sleep

In some cases, the more energy one exerts the more difficult it becomes to achieve a particular goal. Take for instance the example of ‘trying’ to fall asleep. Despite our best intentions the more we try to force ourselves into a state of relaxation, the harder it becomes.

Rather, as many of us have learned the hard way, it is much more helpful to simply let go. Ruminating over the details of an important presentation at work at 1am won’t do you no good.

Observing our thoughts as they come and go enables us surrender and relax as we slowly drift off in a daze.

The Art of Flow  

The idea of wu wei is also similar to the concept of flow states which I have written about in the past. Think about the effortlessness of the musician closing their eyes and loosing themselves in a solo or a dancer performing a complex routine with ease and grace.

These performers often leave us speechless and confused, how is it that they can make such a difficult thing look so easy?

In these instances, the artist doesn’t have time to think of what they are doing next. They must trust themselves and immerse themselves in the present moment – the ‘now’.

Wu wei is effortless motion and complete presence in the activity.

Be Yourself , It’s All That You Can Do

When we try to be someone or something we are not, we are awkward, tense and rigid. We know intuitively that this is not the right path for you.

It may sound cliché, but given our uniqueness why would you want to live someone else’s life? Why would want to be, look or follow the thousands of others who worship celebrities on their smartphones?

Being authentic and embracing your inner nature is much more liberating.

Wu wei nudges us towards the path, our path – the only one that is made for us.  

The first version of this article was first published on my personal blog: A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life – In Search of Inner Freedom.

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13 thoughts on “The Flow of Life: The Wisdom of Wu Wei

  1. Unfortunately we have become so programmed, that most of us would not be able to “live”, if we were removed from such construct.
    And By programmed, I do mean, the subtle messages that we are bombarded with within our daily encounters/settings: via media, public facility, advertisements etc.

    Thank you for referencing the first article

  2. A very interesting post. We shouldn’t let Hustle culture get the better of us. Nice to know about the wisdom of Wu Wei which shows you the path of least resistance.

    1. Yes, ambition and hard work are of course important, but sometimes we need time to recharge and refocus or we are destined towards burnout

  3. This is a very captivating post. It provides several fundamental insights that I can use to improve my life. I particularly found the point about anxiety, perpetual stress, and burnout being the consequence of an overbearing lifestyle very helpful.

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